Salisbury Council Hears Regional Economic Update

SALISBURY — The quarterly Salisbury-Wicomico Economic Development (SWED) update delivered to the Salisbury City Council this month was generally positive, showing a decrease in unemployment and early indications of business growth.

Overall economic recovery remains choppy, especially with a slow housing market, but SWED officials continue to be optimistic about downtown being the catalyst for long-term development.

Spring has been better this year than last with unemployment in the area, according to Dave Ryan, executive director for SWED. Unemployment in May dropped from 8.7 percent to 7.1 percent as compared to that time last year.

“And in May, anyway, that was due to more employment as opposed to lower labor force participation,” Ryan told the council. “So one month or two months I know a trend does not make but I’m an optimistic guy and I’m finding the optimism here as we go forward.”

On the business front, SWED is seeing some of the predictions it made this year come closer to fruition. Ryan anticipated that Salisbury could see an influx of small, tech-based companies over the next few years. The companies might only have a few employees each but enough firms would add up quickly.

Some of those businesses appear to be filtering in with Ryan mentioning recent city addition Leverage Mobile as exactly the kind of small technology company he meant when he delivered SWED’s last update.

“I suggested that you may see some more technology type companies, maybe smaller employment in 10 firms employing 10 people, “opposed to one employing 100…[Leverage have] already hired a few interns from SU and the future looks bright for that type of technology,” he said.

Salisbury’s downtown continues to be an area of focus for SWED. There’s significant growth potential there, according to Ryan. The area surrounding the city library is being looked at as the potential jumping off point for a growing creative, artistic community.

SWED is trying to drive interest in downtown and the city as a whole through partnerships with Start-Up Maryland, Salisbury University’s Race to Innovate and several entrepreneurial competitions that aim to small businesses get a running start.

Attracting businesses and residents today takes a somewhat different philosophy, Ryan said, especially with youth. In the past, a new company would open in an area and people would flock to the jobs and establish a neighborhood. But now some people don’t want to chase a job and instead chose an area they want to become a part of and go from there.

“There’s a new paradigm today, especially amongst the younger generation,” said Ryan, “where they’re looking at a specific area and saying, ‘this is where I would like to live, how can I make a go of it?’”

SWED is taking a positive outlook on Salisbury but Ryan admitted that there’s still a long way to go to get back to where the city was previous to the economic downturn in 2008. Before the recession, Salisbury enjoyed job growth at a higher than average rate compared to both the state and the country, according to Ryan.

But that took a swing post-2008 with Salisbury hit hard.

“[Before the recession] we saw lots of jobs being created and we were growing at a rate far greater than the Sstate of Maryland and the country as a whole in terms of employment and jobs,” said Ryan. “Conversely, on the other side of the recession, we’re in a very prolonged and very sluggish recovery process.”

The housing market continues to struggle to balance itself and circulate the roughly 550 existing homes that are up for sale. Those properties are slowly being cycled, Ryan told the council, but until existing inventory thins out a little it’s unlikely that there will be much new residential construction.

However, as with unemployment, Ryan is optimistic about Salisbury’s overall recovery. He believes that the city has a strong foundation and broad enough base to weather the recession.

“We’re blessed, truly, to have a fairly diversified base anchored in poultry and agriculture, health care and education and a very diverse industrial base,” Ryan said.

Though the housing market is slow to pick up generally, he added that there does seem to be high demand for what already exists. The key is just going to be making Salisbury the kind of place that residents want to put down roots, according to Ryan.

One area where the city could look for economic opportunities is in the topical alternative energy field. Solar power has already seen interest in the county, such as with the installation at Perdue’s headquarters along Route 50. Wind power is also worth investigating, said Council President Jake Day, particularly because of pending projects in Somerset and Worcester counties.

“Is there anything in terms of regional partnerships that we aren’t doing that we should be doing or we are doing that people should be aware of?” Day asked.

Ryan promised that, while it’s early in the game, SWED is keeping an eye on regional wind energy as it develops.